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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Curious Observation about Satan and the Garden of Eden

It’s pretty common knowledge that Satan tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God and eat the apple. Right? Of all the things in the Bible, that can be assumed and accepted without argument or debate. Can’t it? Well, just to be sure, we should go through Genesis 3 and circle all the references to Satan. It just takes a second. In fact, here’s the passage.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:1-7, NRSV).

Try as we might, there is no mention of Satan, Devil, Lucifer, Evil One, Dragon, or other title for the evil Fallen Angel. The simple fact is the narrative tradition that passed Genesis on from one generation to another until it was finally written down did not recognize some evil supernatural being. We are told of a talking serpent that tempted Eve with half-truths.

So where does the idea that serpent actually being a manifestation of Satan come from? Even with the evidence of Biblical content just cited, people would still say I am nuts to question the notion that the serpent was any other than Satan. Genesis doesn’t say it was Satan, but we’ve always assumed it was. We dare not question what we’ve always known. So someone who does question must be wrong (and blasphemous and heretical and anathema).

I submit to you that it is extremely important that we read the Bible critically; that is, we question everything as read for the purpose of being sound and sure in our understanding. We don’t just throw out commonly held assumptions about familiar stories, like Adam and Eve. We think on those stories thoroughly so that our belief is informed, well formed, and we know why we believe it.

To find the source for our theological assertion that the Eden serpent from the very first book of Bible is Satan at work, we turn to the 12th chapter of the last book, Revelation. Revelation 12:7-9:

7And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Verse 9 is pretty clear – the serpent and Satan were one. Did believers always understand this connection? I don’t think so. The idea of Satan is one that evolved through the different eras of Israel’s history and relationship with God. In the book Job, Satan is one of God’s council members. His is an official role – the adversary. By the time the prophet Zechariah is at work, Satan is clearly running against the purposes of God (Zechariah 3:1-4). In the days of Jesus, Satan is an enemy who has access – he is able to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. However, the demons of Hell cower in fear before Jesus in every encounter they have with him.

In Revelation, it’s all out warfare and it is not fought here, but in Heaven (12:7). Moreover, God is not a participant. Rather the archangel Michael leads a brigade of angels who defeat the Dragon, Satan, who also has an angel army. There is no word on how long or how violent this conflict is. The important note is that as the warfare in Heaven is also played out on earth, the battle is not won with swords or spears (or weapons of modern warfare). Rather sacrifice and martyrdom win the day.

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).

The metaphor for Jesus crushing the evil one is not a mighty lion, but rather a slaughtered lamb, and the uncompromising testimony of the church that has sworn allegiance to Jesus. There have been thousands of pages of Bible interpretation written just on Revelation chapter 12. My words here simply offer up the foundational truth of that chapter, and one of the basic essentials of Christianity. Evil is defeated by faithfulness – the faithfulness and love of Jesus to die for our sins; and, the faithfulness of His church, including us, to testify to the truth about Him and His gospel to the world no matter what that testimony will cost us.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Destroying the Destroyers of the Earth

In Revelation 11, John of Patmos speaks of two witnesses empowered with authority (presumably the authority of Jesus; referred to as a "voice from Heaven," chapter 9-10). These witnesses prophesy for 1260 days while clothed in sackcloth. The sackcloth evokes the image of John the Baptist, the austere prophet who paved the way for Jesus and was martyred.

I say they "evoked" the Baptizer because that's what the images in Revelation do. They evoke memory in the community of faith. The pictures of Revelation also awaken our anticipation of what God is going to do both in our lives and in the eschatological future (eschatological future = what God will do at the end of the age). Ours is a faith perceived by us through memory and anticipation, even as we experience the presence of God. At the Communion Table (also called the Lord's Supper and the Mass and the Eucharist), we remember Jesus breaking the bread and saying "this is my body." The memory and the act of eating awakens us to the reality of our own sinfulness (we deny, betray, and abandon him just as Peter and Judas and the others did). And, eating alongside our brothers and sisters in the church fills us with awareness of the presence of God in our daily lives.

The images of Revelation should have the same affect. People get so caught up trying to locate the two witnesses of Revelation 11. Where they Peter and Paul? Do they represent the Church and Israel? Are there two witnesses in the future that will be a part the tribulation period or the millennium? I don't see it that way. These are called olive trees and lamp stands (Rev.11:4). And I remember, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). Jesus was saying that to his disciples, all his disciples. Thus to me, he said you are to be a witness that flavors and preserves and improves the world around you the way salt (and olives) flavor, preserve, and improve.

I remember Jesus saying to his disciples, and thus to me, "You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). You are to be a light that eliminates (as a lamp stand would) the darkness with the truth and love of God. Who are the two witnesses? I know I am called to be a witness, and you, reader, are too if you profess to follow and worship Jesus. We don't need to spend time with "tribulation charts" and mind-numbing end times scenarios where we connect the dots with all the symbolism of Revelation. Doing that robs the book of its power to speak in our lives. If we spend our time speculating, calculating and guessing over the symbols and pictures of Revelation, we never have to actually respond to the provocative Gospel in Revelation with the living of our lives.

I could go on with the connections between Revelation 11 and the four Gospels, but this isn't a commentary. This is an honest talk with God. In this conversation, which you are invited you to overhear, I am struck by an article I recently read in Christianity Today magazine. Author Scott Sabin writes, "In Genesis ... Adam is placed in the garden to serve and protect. Throughout the Old Testament we are reminded that "the Earth is the Lord's" and that our role is one of stewardship - temporary caretakers called to account for how well we have discharged our duties." This is reinforced in Revelation 11:18, which says Judgment Day will bring the destruction of those who destroy the earth."

I was fascinated by Sabin's observation and also by his citation of Revelation 11. I have read Revelation more times than I can count, but each time I have quickly glossed over 11:18. In that verse, who do the 24 elders say is rewarded? (1) God's servants, (2) God's prophets, (3) God's saints, and (4) those who fear [revere] God's name. And who gets destroyed? Those who destroy the earth.

In reading Revelation, we spin our wheels and waste our time when we make charts, graphs, and time lines. A better faith reading is to read the words, feel the power, and then ask oneself. Am I a servant of God, or a prophet, or a saint, or one who fears God? Or, am I one who does destructive things? Am I one who destroys relationships with my words, my jealousy, my racism or prejudice, my disdain for people of different socioeconomic classes or my sexism? Am I one who destroys the planet with my blatant disregard for conservation, recycling, and my indifferent wasting of resources? How we answer when we ask ourselves those questions will give us a sense of our own experience on Judgment Day, whatever that day looks like, whenever it is.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I was in college and at the same time, I was in the National Guard. In the Guard, I was an infantryman. Those are foot soldiers. To give you an idea of the mentality instilled in the infantry, during basic training bayonet classes, a company of 54 soldiers are spread in a field, each with a bayonet affixed to the muzzle of their M-16's. They go through a series of violent moves as they shout at the top of their lungs "Kill, Kill, Kill, with the cold blue steel." That's just one small way men are trained to be killers. And in war, it is necessary to be that focused on the job, which is to kill the enemy.

As I said, I was in college at the same time I was in the Guard. I knew that there was the possibility our country would go to war and my college education would be interrupted. I would be called to go to another nation and do what I had practiced in basic training and on weekend drill duty every month. In fact our country did go to war - the Desert Storm. Our unit was not mobilized. So, I never faced war. But I tried to prepare for it mentally. And I ran into the teachings of Jesus. I mean teachings like "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9), "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39), and "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).

Any serious Christian has to consider these teaching of Christ when considering war and violence. I never resolved the issue in my own heart. My unit was never mobilized and my 6-year stint in the Guard ended in 1995. In 2003, I could not resolve the issue as our country went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I regret that I could not see then ('03) how foolish those wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) have turned out to be. Thousands have lost their lives with very little gain for the greater good of humanity.

In America, we have not prayed for those who persecuted us. We have sought to destroy them with extreme prejudice and we call it "patriotism." We have not turned the other cheek. We have responded to violence with greater violence and more destruction. We have not done as the Apostle Paul prescribes in Romans 12:17-21
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"d]">[d]says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."e]">[e] 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

We have not overcome evil with good, but rather we matched evil with more evil (Abu Grhaib). It certainly was not and is not the Jesus way.

Three things bring this to my attention.

First, all my Republican friends (I am, politically, an independent) do two things. First, they lash out at a Democratic president and paint a picture of him as evil and anti-Christian, but they never acknowledge the good things he does. And they refuse to look at the foibles of the Republicans. The Republicans are depicted as being appointed by God and the Democrats as agents of Satan. It's a ridiculous caricature in both directions.

Second, my good friend's wife from another country is applying for citizenship. She's a pacifist and has trouble swearing an oath to support our nation's use of force. It's not that she's anti-American. She wants to be a citizen of our nation. She just doesn't support military force any time or any where. She's for peace - always. Yet, the military zealots in our country would call her a "pinko liberal commie fascist coward" if did anything other than uncritically support every action of our military. The right-wing elements of our nation claim to defend freedom by fighting enemies abroad (who generally aren't attacking our freedom), but at home these same right-wingers attack anyone who expresses that freedom (freedom of speech) if that expression is critical of the military. It's not right.

Third, I have been reading the book God's Politics by Jim Wallis, a pacifist. He's also an evangelical. I don't always agree with him or his approach, but I am finding I agree more and more with his anti-war stance. He's laid a vision for how terrorism can be fought with international police cooperation rather than unilateral wars. His arguments on these issues are compelling and worth consideration.

All of this - my conservative friends, my liberal friends, my pacifist friends, the foolishness of our nation, the anti-Christian nature of our nation, and finally the reading I have done - it all has me thinking. It has me reliving arguments I had with myself while in college some 20 years ago. Those arguments were never resolved and still aren't. I received army infantry training. My father served in the infantry in Vietnam, and I believed he served honorably. My father-in-law was a navy captain, my grandfather a navy enlistee. My uncle was a career air force my and my sister-in-law was a Jag officer. One of my best friends from high school is in his 21st year in the national guard. I am not anti-military.

But, I am finding more than ever that I see the Gospel as closer to pacifism than any other philosophy out there related to the issues of war, nationalism, and international commerce. The pacifists are in step with the Lord. And I want to be in step with the Gospel of Jesus. So, in side me, deep in my soul, the argument continues.

Monday, August 2, 2010


"Work - been there, done that. Didn't work out for me."

"In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: 'If anyone isn't willing to work, he should not eat.' R)">(R) 11 For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work [of others]."

The first quote is from an old friend of mine. He really struggled. He struggled with relationships. He had a hard time holding onto a job for more than a few weeks. Most of the time I knew him, he was completely unemployed, and not all to interested in getting gainful employment. In one of our sessions in which I was encouraging him to fill out some applications, maybe hit all the fast food places and grocery stores, he responded,
"Work - been there, done that. Didn't work out for me."

The second quote is from the Apostle Paul, writing in 2nd Thessalonians 3:10-11. "If anyone isn't willing to work, he should not eat." I wonder if Paul would make an exception for my friend who has bipolar personality disorder? I don't know. In recent years, I spent a summer working with someone who had a similar personality disorder, and it didn't slow her down one iota. I never would have guessed her condition because in ministry, she was energetic, dynamic, and extremely effective.

At our church, we have been focusing on compassion ministry - care for people who are disadvantaged, needy, starving, orphaned, exploited. From 2008 until now, with the global economic woes, the unemployed have felt themselves to be among those in need of the compassion of the church. Our church has had an unbelievable run of people calling and asking for aid in paying bills and the monthly rent. My rough estimate is that the calls have tripled from what they were before 2008. Who are the new charity-seekers? People who used to work.

Still, if there is 10% or 15% unemployment in our country, doesn't that mean we have an employment rate of 85% or 90%? Yes, a lot of people are out of work. Still most have jobs, don't they? The practical bottom line is people need enough to pay the rent, eat, stay in acceptable clothing, have transportation, and have insurance and health care. Everyone has to have these things. The materialism of America demands much more - TV, movie and amusement money, the latest fashionable clothes, a car, and vacation money. None of those things are needs, but don't tell advertisers that.

What do we do with Paul's statement about working and eating? Do I tell my friend, the one I mentioned at the beginning, to shove off? Do I tell him I am done helping him? Is that Jesus in speaking, if I say that?

And who am I any way? As I ponder this concept of work, something occurs to me? I don't really produce anything. I can't build a house or a car or a radio or a computer. I suppose I could work in a restaurant if I had to, and if there was a job available, and if the manager would hire me. But, right now, I don't do that. Right now, I produce no food, no product, no measurable service. I don't really fix things. As far as consumer products go, I don't add anything to the market.

My work is recognized by hospitals - they give pastors a picture ID card and free parking. I could be categorized as a teacher of sorts. I could be considered a counselor. I do manage (maybe oversee is a better word) a small, nonprofit organization, and productive people under my leadership do a lot of good in the world. So, I suppose I contribute something. At any rate, a percentage of the monetary gifts working people give to the church go to my salary and benefits, and everyone accepts that. So, I do work.

But, what if my work were cut off?

Along another line of thinking, what work is considered "valuable?" Is the man who fries hamburgers most valuable because he's providing something essential for human existence - food? He's certainly not paid like his work is the most valuable. What about the person whose work requires him or her to gain a master's degree and maybe a doctorate? Is that work more valuable because the skill set is rarer and harder to come by? What could you live without, the verbose preacher's ramblings or the cook's meals? Professional athletes provide something we could certainly do without - entertainment. (Half the time, it's not entertaining but rather infuriating because your team loses!) And they get paid millions, even the mediocre athletes.

I really like something I read by Francis Wilson in the Ecumenical Review. Work lends meaning and fulfillment to life; the purpose of work is not to gain and accumulate property, but to meet the needs of the community. It brings to my mind the preaching of John the Baptist in Luke 3. He addressed the approach to work that should be taken by soldiers and tax collectors (both thought to be professions that were inherently evil and antithetical to the will of God). John did not tell workers in either profession to give up their jobs, but rather to approach them in such a way that they were honest with others and obedient to the ways of God.

What he said there along with Wilson's comments about work and meaning leads me to the conclusion that God can be glorified in just about any job (OK, maybe hit-man, bookie, exotic dancer, pin-up model might be exceptions and you can think of other exceptions as well). But, by any job, I mean a garbage man or a shoe salesman, a plumber or a mortician, a school teacher or an EMT. How can these works glorify God and give meaning?

First, do the job the very best you can. The Christian garbage man should arrive early and be a professional to nth degree. He should makes his rounds with efficiency and a sense of care for the people whose trash he is collecting.

Second, he should treat his coworkers and his employer with great respect and dignity. He should think of Jesus' words "love your neighbor as yourself" each time he interacts with people on the job, even on tough, tough days.

Third, he should be financially responsible with the money he is paid on that job. Even if he's not paid as well as he should be, he should do his very best to be financially wise.

Fourth, he should live with thankfulness. Maybe he wants a better job, one that is less messy, more interesting, with more amenable hours, and better pay. He can pray for that better job. He can send out applications and resumes. If the first 500 he sends out yield nothing, send 500 more. Until God brings that dream job along, he collect waste cheerfully, thanking God that he is doing something meaningful and getting paid to do it.

This approach may take serious spiritual discipline, but I think it is worth the spiritual work. It is worth it to condition our souls so that we can see Jesus in what we do whether it is picking up garbage, fixing cars, teaching university students, or something else. Most of us spend about 40-48 hours a week sleeping and another 40-50 at work. We need to interact with Jesus in our dreams and in our vocation, or else he is only gaining access in less than 30% of our lives. He's supposed to be Lord of all.

Our work has meaning, and the church must love those who have no work but are desperately looking. Furthermore, God calls the church to love people like my friend who look sometimes, but most of the time prefer the life of homelessness to the daily grind of holding a job. Yes, Paul said those who don't work don't eat, and as an institution, we cannot feed everyone. We must make choices and we must seek God's wisdom as we make those choices. But as individual Christ followers, we love people for the same reason we strive for excellence on our jobs. We don't do it for the glory of the job. We work hard for the glory of God. And we don't love (and help) people because of their worthiness. We love people because while were still lost in sin, Jesus loved us enough to die for us.

I don't know if I offered anything revolutionary about work in this blog. I hope my thoughts inspire some thought in you.